Florida Should Make Oil Industry Pay Fair Share of Climate Change Impacts They Caused

Floridians are already feeling the heat and paying the price for climate change which the oil industry caused

Susan Glickman | June 30, 2020 | Climate Change, Florida, Offshore Drilling, Sea Level Rise

This blog first appeared as a guest opinion in The Invading Sea and also in the Tampa Bay Times on June 29, 2020.

Florida coastal flooding

The fact is that climate change is already costing Florida cities, large and small, a fortune. Plain and simple, that means taxpayers are on the hook for big bucks.

That’s bad news for Floridians who are already seeing high insurance rates which are about to go up again. Plus new modeling by the First Street Foundation shows more homes are at risk for flooding than previously projected by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency).

And that’s just the beginning because the situation is going to get worse unless we all dramatically reduce dangerous carbon pollution so as not to exacerbate the problem.

The looming question though is, should taxpayers be left footing the bill? If our officials have the best interest of taxpayers at heart, they desperately need to explore new avenues both to pay for these much-needed efforts to make us more resilient and to reduce emissions.

Look no further than my own small community of Belleair Beach on the west coast of Florida about 30 miles west of the Tampa International Airport where I have lived for almost three decades. Though Belleair Beach’s current annual budget is only $2.7 million, flooding and heavy rains – both climate impacts – have forced my small city to spend $4 million on new stormwater projects, dipping into limited reserves and creating a “huge budget gap,” according to Mayor Gary Katica.

Now Belleair Beach officials are proposing a new stormwater fee for residents. This is the latest example of how flooding, made more severe and frequent thanks to climate change, is increasing costs for taxpayers. And across this state, communities are facing even higher costs. In the Miami area, combatting storm surge means $4.6 billion for sea walls as high as 15 feet, and that’s just for one project.  A plan was just released by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to help the Florida Keys adapt to rising seas. It’s $5.4 billion dollars to elevate more than 7,000 homes and buy out another 300 homes. Yet another bill that taxpayers are racking up.

Earlier this year, State Reps. Ben Diamond, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, and Holly Raschein, a Republican from the Florida Keys, published a column in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel voicing concerns about thesupercharged hurricanes, sea-level rise, imperiled coral reefs, and increased flooding.” But in the legislative session, unfortunately, they were not successful in convincing their colleagues to pass a much-needed Florida Climate and Resiliency Research Program to assess the effects of climate change on our state’s environment, resources, health, and economy, and to examine the extent of the threats to our communities, including how much it will cost Florida taxpayers to address them.

It’s bad news for Florida taxpayers that leaders are ignoring these costs as they pile up. Impacts from climate change will continue to drive taxes higher and higher so it’s key that officials acknowledge that everyday Floridians are not to blame for the warming climate and rising seas. That credit goes to the fossil fuel industry – and in particular a small number of major oil and gas companies like Exxon, Chevron, BP and Shell — that are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions that is causing climate change. Like tobacco companies and opioid manufacturers, fossil fuel executives spent decades misleading the public about the harm their products caused while communities like ours in Florida pay the price.

In recent years, a growing number of state, county, and city governments have gone to court to hold the oil industry accountable for its deception and to make them pay for the billions of dollars in damage they caused. From Rhode Island to Colorado to Hawaii, these communities point to the growing body of evidence, unearthed by whistleblowers and journalists, that oil companies spent decades lying to the public about what they knew to be true: their products posed a “potentially catastrophic” threat to the climate. Instead of reshaping their business or warning the public, the industry instead took steps to protect their own assets and infrastructure from rising seas and other climate damages, while leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves.

According to the peer-reviewed work of Harvard researchers Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran, the oil industry’s goal from the beginning was straightforward: confuse the public about climate change, downplay its risk, and sow doubt about the science in order to delay action and protect their profits.  As an example, a 1988 Shell Oil internal memo stated, “There is reasonable scientific agreement that increased levels of greenhouse gases would cause global warming. However, by the time global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or event to stabilize the situation.”

The stark words from Shell Oil send chills up my spine and now, 32 years later, we are already paying the price for damage that the decades of deceit and the resulting delayed government action on climate caused for communities across Florida.

Just last week, the attorneys general of Minnesota and the District of Columbia (D.C,) filed back-to-back consumer protection lawsuits. Minnesota filed against Exxon, Koch Industries, Minnesota’s largest oil refiner, and the American Petroleum Institute. D.C. targeted Exxon, BP, Chevron, and Shell. Both suits aim to hold them accountable for defrauding the public, withholding information, and wreaking havoc on local residents, economies, and ecosystems. Like lawsuits filed against both the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries, these cases seek to hold corporations responsible for lying about the damages they knew their products would cause. Among other remedies, the lawsuits seek financial restitution for the harm their lies caused the people of Minnesota and D.C.

I will ask again a question I posed earlier, “Should taxpayers be left footing the bill?”

Florida officials should consider actions similar to Minnesota and D.C. to ensure that the very polluters that caused this problem, and not taxpayers alone, pay their fair share of the damage.

Susan Glickman
This blog was written by a former staff member of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
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